March 9, 2018: Ultra

Welcome to Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway. I’m Aaron Gordon, a freelancer writing about many subjects, one of which is transit for the Village Voice. If you’re a new or prospective subscriber, head over to the Subway Knowledge Base page for an introduction to the state of the subway.

As always, send any feedback, subway questions, or Dog in a Bag photos to aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.  

This Week In #CuomosMTA

On Thursday, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota and Managing Director Ronnie Hakim testified in front of the City Council transportation committee. It was a pretty solid grilling, particularly from Speaker Corey Johnson, even though the Council has very little practical oversight of the MTA itself—which, again, is largely controlled by Governor Cuomo and, to a lesser extent, the state legislature.

As others have noted, the juxtaposition between the Council’s pertinent, valid concerns with the lame duck “questions” Albany asked Lhota last time he went up there was striking.

Second Ave. Sagas@2AvSagas

I can't get over this. The last time Albany dragged Lhota upstate, they asked him pointless questions. Corey just hammered him on vital issues for 20 minutes. The city should have far more oversight over the MTA. https://t.co/vtKBhg278k

March 8, 2018
Why, it’s almost as if New Yorkers rely on the MTA but the rest of the state couldn’t care less.

The overarching theme, best summarized by Johnson in his final remarks, was that New Yorkers don’t want to hear about capital plans, long-term budgets, and complicated hedges. They want the subway to be fully modernized, not 40 years from now, but soon. Improved communication doesn’t just mean better announcements on trains. It means plain English updates on how the subway is doing and what the MTA is doing to improve it. (If you’re curious as to how Lhota responded to this, he spent a lot of time talking about the MTA Subway Time app and said, more or less, that if people knew about it they could time when they leave their home or work better.)

Which is why I want to go into more detail on a critical topic: modernizing the signal system. This was brought up many times during the hearing, specifically in the context of we are not waiting 40 years, buddy. Lhota put an awful lot of weight on the wireless technology the MTA is currently testing. It’s called ultra-wideband radio (UWB), and the MTA’s testing of it was first reported by the Daily News a few months ago. Basically, Lhota was strongly implying that, while they’re still in the “proof of concept” phase, this could be their solution to upgrading the signals quicker than the 40-year, some-tens of billions of dollars from now plan.

I’ve been looking into this off and on ever since those first reports, and a lot is still unclear, largely because no transit system in the world uses it. The theory of applying UWB to train communication has been floating around academic papers for more than a decade, but it doesn’t seem to have progressed beyond that, which is why the MTA has to prove the concept.

The concept, so far as I understand it—the MTA has not replied to my multiple requests to learn more about what they’re up to—is that UWB will be the “communication” part of communication-based train control, or CBTC. Of course, CBTC itself is used in subway systems all around the world, including right here in New York on the L (and soon the 7). With CBTC, trains are fitted with RFID chips that are picked up by trackside transponders, which then relay the information of the train’s location and speed to a central system via good ol’ fashioned copper wire. What UWB would allow, I gather, is to basically replace the copper wire and not have to place as many transponders because the signal is much stronger. UWB is very high bandwidth, so in theory it allows for transponders to relay information to the nearest station, where it could then be transmitted via the wireless internet system already in place. There are additional benefits like being able to detect objects on the track, including people, which could save lives as well as time and money.

Alleviating the need to lay down copper wire is no small thing. Doing so is expensive, time-consuming, and in extreme cases it gets stolen because it’s so valuable (really). In theory, this could lead to very large cost and time savings.

UWB is currently used in other industries that makes me think it could apply here, mainly for things like tracking inventory (airlines use it for tracking luggage-hauling vehicles around airports, for example, and some massive warehouses use it for tracking purposes, too). It is also used by a company called Zebra Technologies to provide all those fancy stats you see during football games such as ball and player speed, thanks to RFID chips installed in player shoulder pads and the ball itself along with transponders placed throughout the stadium to track their locations in real time.

Overall, I came out of reporting this concept oh-so-mildly optimistic. If zero is “this is the worst idea,” 100 is “this is fantastic and we absolutely have to do it,” and 50 is “I still have no idea if this is good or not” I’m somewhere around 55.

UWB is a flexible radio spectrum that can be used for all kinds of things, but fundamentally it’s about precisely tracking objects. In theory, it seems like it would be a good fit. But I keep saying “in theory” for a reason. It’s totally unproven for tracking trains in tunnels along hundreds of miles of track.

Critics of the UWB trials say it’s unnecessary. The rest of the world has figured out CBTC, why can’t we? It’s a proven, reliable technology. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Supporters argue that we shouldn’t ignore new technology. If it takes a year to figure out if we might save a decade and billions of dollars, then why not find out? If it doesn’t work out, we’ve lost almost nothing, since it’s not like existing CBTC rollouts have to stop in the meantime (more on that below). But I think this underplays the true risk, which is the MTA moves forward after a successful proof of concept on a very small test track only to find significant issues down the road.

I see validity to both sides. On the one hand, there’s no great reason to trust the MTA with installing completely new technology when they can’t even get older ones right. On the other hand, I think it’s unfair to demand the MTA do something quickly and cheaply while preventing them from fully exploring new technologies.

As always, a lot of this debate could be advanced if we knew more about the technology itself and what the MTA plans to use it for. Then we could have real discussions about concrete topics, not theoretical inquiries. Maybe the Genius Competition results (which are expected to be released today) will further the discussion. I sure hope so, because I’m tired of guessing what’s going on. As usual, it all comes down to communication.

News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood

  • Speaking of, the MTA has awarded a $223 million contract for the installation of Communication-Based Train Control (CBTC) along the Queens Boulevard line, from north of the Kew Gardens/Union Tpke E/F station to north of the 47-50 Sts/Rockefeller Ctr station on the F/M Lines and south of the 50 St C/E Subway station. Originally, the MTA projected they would award these contracts in 2017 when CBTC on the 7 was done, but that was delayed (summer of 2018, they say, it’ll be done). The targeted completion date for this phase of CBTC on the EFM is the fall of 2021. Siiiigh.

  • The MTA is planning on creating a “Freedom ticket” for commuters in the area of Queens and Brooklyn that has LIRR stops. Right now commuters have the choice of paying about $10 for a one-way LIRR and subway ride or a much longer but cheaper ride using only subway and buses. The freedom ticket would cost $6.50 and include a subway transfer. It seems like a good idea, but people are now pissed off because the freedom ticket pilot program will not include Penn Station. It will only apply to transfers at Atlantic Terminal. “The pilot is therefore being set up for failure, an outcome that is unacceptable,” several elected officials wrote to the MTA. At the city council hearing, Lhota denied it is set up to fail.

  • The Daily News has been on point with their transit-related editorials recently. While they’re not the most detailed, they’re succinct and valid. This one, on the subway’s shameful state of inaccessibility for less mobile New Yorkers, is just another example. By the way, AMNY reports that not only does the subway system have an embarrassing lack of elevators, but the ones we do have are out of service for the equivalent of two weeks out of the year.

  • For a bit of digital performance art, here is a website that shows a map of the subway, but only the lines that are in good service.

  • It’s not strictly subway related, but I’ve done a horrible job drawing attention to the dismal state of the city’s bus system, which I would argue is in an even bigger crisis than the subway. And the two are absolutely inter-connected. There has been a ton of solid reporting on this and this week’s report in the Times is another good example.

Line Ratings 

Using the fantastic Subwaystats.com website, I've compiled weekly ratings for each line. Each number represents the percent of time the last week (Monday-to-Sunday) that the line had "Good Service." For example, if the number is 70 percent, that means the line had "Good Service" 70 percent of the time and any form of disruption—planned work, delays, service changes, etc.—the other 30 percent.

This is just one of many ways to measure a line's performance. It's not perfect. For one, it relies on the MTA's definition of "Good Service," which there are very good reasons to doubt. On top of that, most people would prefer a line be down all weekend for planned maintenance but not for the two hours during rush hour. I wish the MTA compiled Lost Customer Hours like Transport for London does, but then again I wish the MTA did a lot of things.

If you’re having trouble viewing the graph below in the email, check it out in your browser by clicking the “view in browser” button at the top-right of this email or going to signalproblems.substack.com.

This seems to mostly be a chart about which lines have planned work most often. I need to figure out a new line ratings system.

In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better

This week's estimate: 2021

Big adjustment coming next week, in all likelihood. Stay tuned.

Your Upcoming Service Advisories, Provided by Lance from Subway Weekender

Weekend:

4 5 - All service is local-only between 125 Street and Grand Central

7 - No service between Times Square and Queensboro Plaza

A C - Downtown service is express-only in Manhattan

D - Downtown service runs via C line between 145 Street and W 4 Street

D F - Brooklyn swap [editor’s note: this is my favorite service advisory of all time]

  • D - All service runs via F line between W 4 Street and Coney Island

  • F - All service runs via D line between W 4 Street and Coney Island

F N - Manhattan-bound service is local-only in Brooklyn Full map here

Late Nights:

3 - No service

4 6 - M101 buses replace local service between 125 Street and Grand Central

7 - No service between Queensboro Plaza and 34 St-Hudson Yards (Tue. morning)

A - Downtown service is express-only between 168 Street and 59 St-Columbus Circle

E - Jamaica Ctr.-bound service is express-only between Roosevelt Av and Jamaica-Van Wyck

N - No service between Queensboro Plaza and Times Sq-42 St (Wed.-Fri. mornings)

Full map here

Subway Detective Agency

Have a weird question about the subway you’ve always wanted to know? Send it to aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com.

Any idea what this is in the windows on all the new standing E trains?

-Ian

Those are the antennas that allow content to be uploaded to the new interior LCD signs on the sides of the train (the ones that play ads or promote the Second Avenue Subway).

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

MTA Mention of the Week

nattie@missez_nattie

I was on 96th street on the last cart of the uptown 2 train when everyone just started running off screaming. I honestly didn’t know why I was running but I ran. I turned around and it was a huge fire/explosion on the train track. The fire was coming towards the platform.

March 7, 2018

Dog in a Bag

Photo credit: Alex Abnos

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